Close
Close

ESSAYS Mousse 66

An Unpardonable Mannerism of Style

by Rose Vickers

 

daniela010Daniela Rossell, Untitled (Ricas y Famosas), 2002. Courtesy: the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

 

How can ideas of participation and “vestedness” inform a long-standing art theoretical debate on the relationship between aesthetics, ethics, and utility, with reference to particular aspects of art practice?

There’s a quite-famous scene in the now-cult film American Beauty (1999) in which a man watches a plastic bag blowing around a parking lot. “Do you want to see the most beautiful thing I ever filmed?… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world… I feel like I can’t take it… and my heart is just going to cave in.” It’s a regular white supermarket bag set against a generic red folding door surrounded by autumn leaves, also in flight. Air to ground. Ground to air. The man is transfixed. One might argue that the man is both inside and outside the scene at the same time. It’s meant to communicate something about the possibility of art in everyday life, or the ultimate banality of the American dream, or both. That these two things can coexist suggests the manifestation of a very particular variety of indifference, and it’s this contradictory indifference I’m concerned with.

The title of this essay references a more extended quote by Oscar Wilde, an artist who made clear his aversion to the convergence of art and ethics in any iteration.1 A distaste for ethics in art is deeply rooted in art historical and literary thought, despite that ethical considerations can, of course, reflect the leaning of an artwork as well as its reception. Material brought forward by the unique and often nonlinear perspective of art can sometimes be defined in relation to politics (for or against, left-wing or right-wing and so on). We see this, shortly, in looking at two artworks, both of which happen to incorporate photographs: the Mexican conceptual artist Daniela Rossell’s controversial series Ricas y Famosas (1999-2002) and the American performance artist Andrea Fraser’s installation White People in West Africa (1989/1991/1993). These share a complex, even unstable relationship to conventional philosophical and social theories of ethics where, for both, the materiality of the artwork is paramount and the ethical point of reference is enmeshed with acts of participation and embeddedness, or lack thereof. A certain distance can be achieved between artwork and ethics, and it is in this interstitial space (this gap in which emotion takes place) that an artwork can perform as “art.” It’s conceivable that such a performance is not only possible in post-Duchampian praxis, but in some instances essential. Which is to say: it’s not that art might be useless (to be art), but that it must be useless, evading the ethical imperative entirely.

Consider the moral question of speaking “on behalf” of others. Hal Foster perpends this conundrum in his essay “The Artist as Ethnographer” (1995), which interrogates an often-rehearsed justification for artistic representation of foreign regions, as well as the representation of otherness from within a particular society (by example, that of subcultures and demographics). Foster identifies the crux of the dilemma as one of “aesthetic quality versus political relevance… form versus content,” in language reminiscent of a long line of contemporary artists and theorists. This includes those who profess resistance to a purely political reading of controversial subject matter, such as Joyce Carol Oates’s idea that art is intrinsically separate from ethics.2 These thinkers typically propose an alternative to singularly political readings of artworks. Another figure in this dialogue would be the author, anthropologist, and sociologist James Clifford, who reflexively shies away from political kneejerk optimism in the representation of third-world situations by first-world artists, highlighting instead the complexities of any such representation.As an art example: Daniela Rossell’s Ricas y Famosas (Rich and Famous), which depicts a group of women (presumably wives, girlfriends, and daughters) affiliated with the then-governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the ruling political organization of Mexico from 1929 until the early 1990s. The series comprises an intimate selection of female portraits within Rossell’s elite peer group in Mexico City in the early 2000s, captured across a seven-year span.4 Ricas y Famosas was created in conjunction with her immediate peer group and can be considered doubly inclusive in that Rossell speaks from within an exclusive, powerful, politically affiliated stratum of Mexican society and that Rossell’s status as a Mexican artist depicting a Mexican community makes her an insider or participant observer. This did not excuse the artwork from a high degree of eventual controversy. Rossell was subsequently criticized by members of her depicted group for what they deemed a distorted and inaccurate depiction of their lives and culture. The positive reception of the series within the global art community—being exhibited extensively at high-end commercial galleries, art institutions, and the international art festival circuit from the year of its release—served only to heighten such criticisms.

In an interview with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Rossell discussed a recontextualized placement of the images from local to global, prompting a subtle change in the semiotics of the series: “What happened was that the images were taken in one context, and moved to another context, and took on a different meaning.”5 The possibility of art to transition between received contexts and substantially change is always a part of creative practice, yet this series seemed particularly susceptible to reconfiguration. This may be because it registers on two levels, in which the cognizance of the auteur—her participatory knowingness of both inside and outside—is in fact the hinge. It is both auto-ethnographic and not, and this is problematic, for instance, for a theorist like Mary Louise Pratt, in terms of displaying a perceived disregard for local identity. Does Rossell’s awareness of how the images would look (outside Mexico) engender an obligation to disclose to her peers? I’m not sure. It seems beyond the norms of auto-ethnographic convention, and misses a substantial point of the artwork as a comment on cultural hybridity.

In the photograph Untitled (Ricas y Famosas) (2002), a striking brunette wears a cleavage-revealing zebra-print jumpsuit, half-reclining on an oversize zebra-print rug with a thick black border. Subtle imperfections reveal the rug to be real. In the middle ground, at the woman’s right-hand side, is a stuffed leopard (also real). Other aspects of the setting are familiar, domestic: a now-retro-looking TV (circa 2002), a beige armchair. The viewer can just make out two domestic-size zebra-print cushions (possibly fake) in the background. The predominance of animal print (real and fake) lends a safari edge to what could be any other suburban lounge room. One imagines an interior odor of stale cigarettes and air freshener, and that the scene might sound something like an infomercial or a daytime melodrama. In a peculiar doubling it’s feasible to think about the entire tableau as the setting of a daytime melodrama, but there’s no reason to go down this path. The woman ignores the television, transfixed instead on whoever is behind the lens, her lips parted in an overt display of sexual provocation. In front of the woman is an oversize decorative head. It is carved from a very dark—almost black—wood and is presumably of African origin, going only on the information in the artwork’s title. On first glance one could entirely miss this object, which is almost completely obscured by shadows. It seems to have been deliberately placed in the center of the room—an exquisitely ornamental trip hazard.

 

ITATIULT nikolajDaniela Rossell, Untitled (Ricas y Famosas), 2001. Courtesy: the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

 

Another photograph, Untitled (Ricas y Famosas) (2001), is a carefully staged rendering of triste, the attitude. Five tall red candles are lit atop a gilt-gold table setting. In a colorful nod to art history, an enormous fresco rendering of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper wraps around the entire diameter of an adjacent wall. The woman appears to be home alone and boasts a similar physicality to her predecessor Mariana: subtle honey streaks, boobs, white dress, and white peep-toe heels digging into a vast, clear plastic sheet. The sheet is covering an equally vast, expensive-looking rug. Other than the woman’s expression (fey, melancholic), the placement of the protective sheet is the inadvertent focal point of the image. “The following images depict actual settings,” reads a preface. Recurring throughout other photographs are hybrid influences from other places as well as signs of wealth: Renaissance-style paintings, ornately upholstered furniture in the European tradition, figurative family portraits, a Mexican maid. The cumulative effect is a kind of accelerated, almost simulacraic collage—a real-world visual manifestation of Fredric Jameson’s postmodern pastiche. In this sense, Ricas y Famosas is characterized by the depiction of hybrid visual forms spinning off from a scenario of massive accumulated wealth, as well as the adoption of an Americanized aesthetic on the part of Mexican elites. The photographs’ interior landscapes feel pop-culturally mediated, reflecting a peculiar social environment emerging in part from the impact of Hollywood celebrity culture in Mexican media. The artwork is compelling as a glimpse into PRI culture, yet is even more notable for revealing the excesses of this regime to a Western audience.

What was (or was there) the ethical responsibility of Rossell, here? Can a body of work stand as a purely aesthetic phenomenon (that is, as a documentary or social-photographic commentary) inside one group and as a powerful meditation on status and power inside another? Did Rossell’s shift in register distort a speech act (in visual language) on behalf of others? In her essay on art and ethics, Oates ponders, “If art exists as a medium by which ‘ethical’ messages are conveyed, an implicit morality sanctioned, why trouble with ‘art’ at all? Why the ambiguous—and unambiguous—strategies of ‘art’?… In the artist’s own experience, of course, art is fundamentally indefinable, unsayable; there is something sacred about its demands upon the soul, something inherently mysterious about the forms it takes, no less than its contents.”6 Her statement refers to a reliable disconnect, in art history, between creativity and ethics. Here lies space for the affective power of art. To drill right down, this is the idea that art is well, fine, to be far from the literal and the didactic. Moreover, that a responsibility toward either of those vantages will turn the art into something else, that is, will make it not-art.

If Rossell grayed her ethical arena, she did so without changing the original premise of the work. What was photographed, stayed photographed. The images were neither staged nor altered. Though meaning changed via the shift in audience, the actual materiality of the work stayed the same. It’s difficult (but not impossible) to level a charge of ethical misrepresentation when Rossell made her artistic gesture simply by presenting images, “as they are” in the world, though this argument leans heavily on the real. To concentrate purely on the materialism of a photograph is to see art only as aesthetics and figuration. The paradox is that without this remove—from, say, social context to aesthetic context—there can be no change of meaning, so perhaps this shift, however morally ambiguous, makes art (rather than documentary). I once heard that art can be defined as any entity subject to multiple and conflicting meanings. The sense of bearing witness from a creative vantage feels like a remove, reminds me of the man with the bag—creative indifference and participation in harmony. As one reviewer put it, “Despite their shrill, gaudy content, [Rossell’s] photographs exude a calmness and precision which endow the viewer with the necessary distance.”7 The man with the bag is seeing something otherwise familiar become unfamiliar through the transformative lens of film, and finds this uplifting. In Ricas y Famosas this same sense of unfamiliarity turns unheimlich.

Ambiguity in materialism appears once more in Fraser’s White People in West Africa, which depicts exactly that. There are eighty-two photographs in the installation (found images and Fraser’s own) and three texts, compiled between 1989 and 1991. In the photographs, a series of foreseeable racial interactions occur. A middle-aged blonde female tourist befriends a group of West African children, her benevolence marked by the holding of small hands. She wears a conservative knee-length dress and sports a zoom-lens digital camera, slung casually around her neck. A stocky white male tourist wearing a beige cowboy hat overlooks an African village from a hilltop vantage, hands on hips. White adolescents front another, oddly festive image of indigenous West African children grouped to the back. I should note in segue that speaking on behalf of others is a theme well examined in contemporary art practice. It is relevant to the very specific dilemmas of representation accompanying artistic activities in foreign regions.8 There’s a shorthand for this—you just say “Margaret Mead” or talk about Dorothea Lange’s agricultural sociology, cultural anthropology, sharecroppers in the Depression—everyone knows what you mean. Fraser is aware of the Mead-Lange discourse and appears to be also aware of her audience’s perception of this paradigm, and this tension of knowing fuels much of the affective power of the installation. The sense of third-party awareness applies even where we can assume this knowledge is simply implicit to a layperson, just a part of visual culture or a collective societal sense of when something’s “off.” The theorist Alison Landsberg would refer to it as prosthetic memory.

 

1993F_9 copyAndrea Fraser, White People in West Africa, 1989/1991/1993. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin / Cologne

 

In a way, White People in West Africa interrogates power structures governing economic and political frameworks enabling—not exactly poverty, but the visual imaging of poverty, where, for instance, eighty percent of the revenue of the Congo stems from aid, and images are required for aid communications. The artwork draws on the familiar visual language of humanitarian media (Walter Benjamin’s “place aura” as it relates to West Africa, UNICEF marketing, et cetera) and touristic literature.9 Simply by showing some of these motifs out of context, it criticizes them.10 One might say that White People in West Africa employs Fraser’s characteristic art world arena of institutional critique in a wider sociopolitical sense to examine white tourism within prescient contexts of colonialism and neocolonialism. Yet in the complicit artistic act of taking photographs, Fraser self-consciously inserts herself into the semiotics of the artwork. The artist, herself, is not excluded from the frame. Thus a prima facie moral reading of white tourism is complicated by the existence of fissures in auteurial authority—failures that extend to the repeated insistence, across multiple points of footage, on Fraser’s compromised position as privileged observer. The auto-ethnography of the artist-foreigner is written into the very fabric of the work, pronounced almost (but not quite) to the point of satire.11

To return to Ricas y Famosas, it’s notable that Rossell’s perspective occurs, at least originally, from the inside. It is in this sense incomparable to Fraser’s orientation as a foreign artist, yet both grapple with similar issues. Ethical concerns as to representation are usually focused on artists working as outsiders in some way, looking at either other nations, social strata, or cultures, and Rossell’s practice is curious as an exception. Her photo series lends weight to the voices of other theorists critiquing practices of creative representation for artist-participants and artist-observers. So, the act of speaking on behalf of a community from which one resides may be demonstrably no less complex than the dilemmas of auteurship experienced by the artist-foreigner, albeit presenting different questions as to representation, participation, and ethicality. All this circles back to the argument that an artwork may take on ethical themes or have a propensity to examine the ethical without actually “being” ethical (or, conversely, not being ethical), and that this inclination toward indifference might apply to artists working either within or external to particular groups. Ethics here is neither central or displaced, but instead sidelined—playing, at most, the role of a source material, one of the manifold elements informing the overall construction of an artwork. Looking to Rossell and Fraser, we see that these artworks consummately escape a moral dialectic. They fall neither inside or outside an ethical framework, but instead take influence from, or pay homage to, such frameworks—hovering at the edge of social conscience, playing with didacticism (almost as a form of source material) but refusing to ultimately adhere. It’s not that the ethical imperative is not there, more that it manifests so arbitrarily as to be considered fabric, while also being no longer the point. In this sense, art is entirely useless, and perhaps must remain so.

 

Errata

Can self-representation bypass the ethical imperative? The philosopher Henry F. Nardone assumes three levels to the moral playing field:

A person’s ethical life is multi-faceted: First, he is involved in a subjective, private relationship with himself (the “I-Myself” subjective relationship). Second, he is involved in an intersubjective relationship with those with whom he shares love (the “I-Thou” personal relationship), and finally, he is involved with persons in society whom he recognizes as persons but with whom he has a more or less objective or impersonal relationship (the I-He relationship). There are no sharp boundary lines between these three relationships; they always overlap somewhat and do not exist in isolation, one from the other.12

N_391_1_1F, 1/19/11, 11:26 AM, 16G, 4342x4171 (2246+2887), 100%, Custom, 1/60 s, R38.7, G29.7, B41.3Francesca Woodman, Untitled (New York), 1979-1980. © Charles Woodman / Estate of Francesca Woodman, New York. Courtesy: Charles Woodman / Estate of Francesca Woodman, New York

 

How does the question of ethical representation hold in relation to artwork that primarily represents not others and society, but the self? In her anthology Photography at the Dock, the cultural theorist Abigail Solomon-Godeau writes about an oscillating—that is, disrupted or “displaced”—relationship with material forms in certain works by the late American photographer Francesca Woodman, continuing to state that “in choosing to assert rather than deny or avoid the fetish status of the female body, Woodman’s photographs are vulnerable to the charge of collusion with those very operations.”13 The term “collusion” here is of note: Woodman engages with the objectified image, but, in her own process, subverts it. She does so by placing additional elements in the frame: three garter belts, rather than one, appear across her torso. Misplaced stockings hang from the ceiling: four in total. The image operates under a guise of disorderment. Things are not as they are supposed to appear, not as we expect them to be, and this is semiotically unsettling. It casts a lens on the female form in a way that reveals the complicity of our own eyes in other images.

Reviewing the same photographs, Emily Apter discusses a “de-fetishization” of the female subject within a gendered arena, which—through noticing a process of motif removal and reworking in Woodman’s nudes, such that they stand apart from the perceived eroticism of the classical same—seems to absolve Woodman from the perception of patriarchal collaboration, however vague.14 In Apter’s view, Woodman’s photographs perform a carefully deployed form of non-participation (even a refusal to participate) in which the artist’s auteurship is, like in works by Fraser or Rossell, that of a participant-observer. Inside and outside the frame, this stems from her unique, quite ambiguous form of self representation. It might be an aesthetic of indifference. I’m not sure if there is really a substantial parallel here, or that Woodman’s more personal dual positioning is indeed comparable to others in this essay. But if there was, it would cast light on the idea of ethicality in a different, perhaps generative way. Or is this just how history plays? A conversation between artists, two steps ahead of everyone else.

 

Rose Vickers is an art writer, researcher, and curator based in New York. She has been published in various anthologies and publications, including the AIAM100 database on Australian Indigenous art. She is currently a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Sydney.

 

[1] Wilde’s statement is contained in his prologue to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890): “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.… Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.… Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”
[2] Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer,” in The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 172.
[3] “There is no master narrative that can reconcile the tragic and comic plots of global cultural history.” James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 15.
[4] A biographical footnote is that Rossell’s family may have been politically affiliated, allowing her social access to the women depicted in Ricas y Famosas.

[5] From the video “Daniela Rossell on Her Book Ricas y Famosas (Rich and Famous),” https://www.sfmoma.org/watch/how-daniela-rossells-photographs-came-to-be-viewed-as-images-of-mexicos-poster-girls-of-corruption/.
[6] Joyce Carol Oates, “Art and Ethics? The (F)utility of Art,” Salmagundi, no. 111 (Summer 1996): 76.
[7] [No author], “Daniela Rossell: Ricas y Famosas,” http://www.hatjecantz.de/daniela-rossell-1212-1.html.
[8] A key text is James Clifford, “Of Other Peoples: Beyond the ‘Salvage Paradigm,’” Third Text 3, no. 6 (1989): 73–78.
[9] Tim Edensor and Uma Kothari engage the notion of a tourist-generated “place aura” in a 2003 essay,
writing in part about how commercial stakeholders in the tourism economy of Mauritius propagate a specific aesthetic engagement with images of colonialism. They highlight the visual dominance of this kind of touristic literature on the island. Tim Edensor and Uma Kothari, “Sweetening Colonialism: A Mauritian Themed Resort,” in Architecture and Tourism (Oxford: Berg, 2003). See also Tim Edensor and Uma Kothari, “Extending Networks and Mediating Brands: Stallholder Strategies in a Mauritian Market,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, n.s., 31, no. 3 (September 2006): 323–36.
[10] Helen Armitage, “Andrea Fraser: Too Shocking for a US Retrospective,” Culture Trip, January 11, 2017, http://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/california/articles/andrea-fraser-too-shocking-for-a-us-retrospective/.
[11] This is perhaps Fraser’s way of grappling with Miwon Kwon’s perspective that ideological appropriation is unavoidable in the act of speaking on behalf of others. However, Dutch artist Renzo Martens deflects such an inevitability in Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2008) by persistently and without commentary training his lens on the powerful and mandatory semiotic frameworks contingent to world aid in the Congo. In Ruben De Roo’s essay on Episode III for the NAi text Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization, Martens’s art making is described in the terms of pure semiology, to the extent of defying conventional ethnographic or ideological groundwork expected where artists act in similar ways to anthropologists or ethnographers: “With this film Martens demonstrates his faith in the potential power of art. By compromising both himself and the viewer, he transcends the pure presentation of the artwork. Martens uses the social context of Congo, the concept of Western hegemony, the journalistic form of the documentary and the language of art as both objective and weapon. At this junction of different practices and concepts, Martens is more a manipulator of signs than a maker of art.” Ruben De Roo, “Immorality as Ethics: Renzo Martens’ Enjoy Poverty,” in Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization: Reflect no. 8 (2011): 142.
[12] Henry F. Nardone, “Creativity in Art and Ethics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34, no. 2 (Winter 1975): 187.
[13] Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 244.
[14] Emily Apter, “Reviews: Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History,” Art Bulletin (December 1992). In this segment Apter discerns in Woodman’s photographs “traces” of complicity with the feminine subject that unhinge traditions of gendered voyeurism coded in nineteenth-century pornographic daguerreotypes. These traditions are dissected further in Apter’s “Reconsidering Erotic Photography: Notes for a Project of Historical Salvage,” in “Reviews: Photography at the Dock,” 694.

 

Originally published on Mousse 66

 

 

Related Articles
ESSAYS
The White Wall: An Essay on Performative Illusion
(Read more)
ESSAYS
Chinese Abstraction between the State and the Market: Wang Guangle
(Read more)
ESSAYS
Critical Creative Corrective Cacophonous Comical: Closed Captions
(Read more)
SLIDER1
ESSAYS
TO SPEAK AS IF IN CAPITAL LETTERS
(Read more)
ESSAYS
Hacked by Cloudbursts: Shuang Li
(Read more)
ESSAYS
Yuji Agematsu as “Primal Historian”
(Read more)